On the Bookshelf
Graphic novels and vivid memoirs
Writing fiction about writing fiction can be a tricky business, so novelists often substitute an artist of another sort—most typically, a painter—as their protagonists, examining through them the vicissitudes of a creative vocation. James Sturm, creator of the critically acclaimed graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing and a founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, chooses an unusual craftsman as his alter ego for an extraordinary graphic-novel-style künstlerroman. In Market Day (Drawn & Quarterly, March), Sturm’s stand-in, challenged to balance commitment to his craft against financial responsibilities, is a Jewish rug weaver in early 20th-century Eastern Europe. Sturm illustrates this milieu with precise, somber drawings based in part on the photographs of Roman Vishniac and Alter Kacyzne.
Sturm’s protagonist struggles with the commercial constraints on his skilled labor, a problem grounded in the historical experiences of Jewish artisans. In a classic 1970 study of labor activism in Eastern Europe, now back in print as a paperback—Class Struggle in the Pale: The Formative Years of the Jewish Worker’s Movement in Tsarist Russia (Cambridge, February)—the historian Ezra Mendelsohn remarks that by the late 19th century, “the Jewish weaver in Bialystock was in a sorry plight. By the end of the century, it was obvious that hand looms were no longer profitable.” Mendelsohn analyzes efforts by the Jewish proletariat to organize and assesses the consequences of those campaigns.
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Thanks to its narrative richness and self-reflexivity, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)—itself perhaps the finest American künstlerroman of recent decades—has inspired a handful of Escapist comic books. The most interesting of these, to date, has recently returned to print as a trade paperback: Brian K. Vaughn’s The Escapists (Dark Horse, December), a “kinda-sort of a sequel” to Chabon’s novel, as Vaughn puts it, featuring an aspiring comics creator hoping to revitalize for a new generation of readers the iconic Houdini-esque superhero originally created by Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay.
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Jason Thompson’s comical manga King of RPGs, vol. 1 (Del Ray, January), like Chabon’s novel, examines the use of mass culture genres by young adults as tools of self-transformation. In it, an American college freshman named Shesh Maccabee has been court-ordered to quit, cold turkey, World of Warcraft-style online gaming. In its stead, he discovers the pleasures and absurdities of tabletop role-playing games a la Dungeons & Dragons, in which any awkward teenager can become a warlock or an elf with the roll of a twelve-sided die. Shesh and his multiculti crew of gamers have names that translate to the numbers on such dice, translated into various languages—others include Pedwar, Dudek, Ba, and Harminc—and while Shesh’s nominal Jewishness characterizes him considerably less than his addiction to fantasy games, Thompson does include in his sympathetic satire of nerd culture probably the first ever Hebrew punning allusion to Yugioh.
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Joel Chasnoff’s volunteering for the Israeli military could be said to constitute a riskier form of role playing. In The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah (Free Press, February), Chasnoff describes how he imagined he might bolster his masculinity through military service, only to discover that Tzahal’s teenagers are no more mature or macho than any others—and, like Alexander Portnoy, he discovers that Sabra women can make mincemeat of an American nebbish.
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David Shields has more patience for Chasnoff’s variety of role playing than for Thompson’s: as he phrases the matter in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, February), he is “bored by out-and-out fabrication . . . bored by invented plots and characters.” In a series of numbered polemical vignettes, some of which contain unattributed quotations, he calls for art that anchors itself in the real even while it eschews journalistic accuracy. “The only way I’ve found I can live, literarily” he proclaims, “is by carving out my own space between the interstices of fiction and non-.” To his credit, he recognizes that “secular Jews” like himself—he mentions Vivian Gornick, Leonard Michaels, Harold Brodkey—have already been doing this for decades.
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Yet another contemporary form of role playing that draws less on fantasy than on embodied realities: surrogate motherhood. A medical anthropologist trained at Hebrew University, Elly Teman studies the phenomenon in Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self (California, February). In an insight somewhat preempted by the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler vehicle Baby Mama (2008), Teman finds that while surrogates do not bond emotionally with the fetuses they carry, they develop close and complex relationships with the mothers-to-be. Yet the metaphors used by Israelis to describe surrogacy—one surrogate’s partner refers to the fetus inside her as a “dibbuk”!—vivifies a complex, emotionally charged process.
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While not literally surrogates, Roger Rosenblatt and his wife found themselves playing parental roles in the lives of their young grandchildren after their daughter Amy died suddenly at the age of 38. An award-winning journalist and, like Shields, a self-identified “secular Jew,” Rosenblatt relates the experience of becoming a surrogate parent to three children under the age of 7 in a memoir, Making Toast: A Family Story (Ecco, February), which expands upon a charming 2008 New Yorker essay. In his late 60s, Rosenblatt discovered joy in the little tasks of childcare—reading bedtime stories, fixing breakfasts—that he never experienced with his own children.
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Mickey Leigh’s I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir (Touchstone, December), written with Legs McNeil, is, meanwhile, a sort of surrogate autobiography of the musician, born Jeff Hyman, who founded the Ramones. Before chronicling the founding of one of the most influential punk bands of all time, Leigh—Ramone’s brother, he changed his name from Mitchell Hyman—offers a detailed account of their difficult youths in Forest Hills, Queens, noting that while he had a bar mitzvah, they were “probably the worst Jews on the block.”
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